What would happen if three hundred hardened convicts petitioned the United States Government for an abandoned island where, accompanied by their families, they would be set free to earn their own way?
Overwhelmed by prison budgets and prison riots, the government agrees and sets the prisoners free on windswept, treeless Adak in the Aleutians, the site of a former 'hard duty' Navy station.
Prisoners of the Williwaw is the story of the power struggle between the idealistic leader of this expedition, convict Frank Villa, and a smooth prison boss, James T. Gilmore. Frank Villa opens a school, arranges jobs for people in a small assembly factory and calls for free elections. 'Boss' Gilmore opens a house of prostitution, sells booze, drugs, and guns, and schemes to take over the island one way or another.
Frank's struggle is internal as well as external. He strives to overcome the effects of prison on his psyche. A convict must be passive; a man in charge of a community must take command. A convict must build a wall inside himself against any relationship with a woman; a free man has to leave himself open to love.
The strife between Villa and Gilmore accelerates when their wives arrive and unexpected complications develop.
These conflicts play out against a backdrop of constant rain, vicious windstorms called "williwaws", escape attempts, and a coup by a new group of prisoners from the federal penitentiary in Florence, Colorado, the worst of the worst....
As the guard moved toward the control bubble, the public-address system blared out that all inmates should now proceed to the mess hall. Out of habit the guard punched the ALL button and the cell doors slid open, something the warden obviously didn't want to happen.
The bars to Frank's cell began to move. Finally the doctor was coming in. But there was shouting and running and suddenly there were ten men outside his cell. The guard himself was grabbed from the bubble and dragged to the front of the cell.
"Get the fuck out of the way." Doc Raymond shoved the warden and the prison doctor aside. "Let a real doctor in here."
Doc knelt by the lifeless figure of Rudy, while Frank put his arms out, blocking everyone from entering. Suddenly the press of men pushed Frank backward, almost making him trip over Rudy. Somebody knocked the treasured picture of Frank's son off the wall. Carl Larson, the I-65 killer, pushed the warden, the guard and the prison doctor into Frank's cell. Frank was wedged in a corner. His typing table was pushed into the other corner and upended. His computer smashed to the floor and the printout of his island prison proposal slid to the floor and fanned out. He heard the glass of his picture scrunch under someone's foot.
"A death for a death," Larson said, his squinty, mean eyes focusing on the warden, his bull neck and shoulders dwarfing the smaller man.
Doc Raymond stood up. "Rudy's dead." He grabbed the prison doctor by his sweater. "You asshole motherfucker. You let a human being die right in front of you."
"Kill 'em all," someone shouted from the back of the mob outside the cell.
"We can talk this out," the warden said to Larson.
"Talk? What's to talk about? I already got three life sentences. What's a few more?"
On the tier Frank heard the sounds of a full riot, chairs and tables being thrown over the railing, porcelain fixtures being pried from the wall. He smelled the smoke of a mattress fire.
Behind Larson a path cleared. Boss Gilmore slid in next to Larson and said in a low voice, but one that Frank could hear, "Let the prison doctor go. We need him."
Frank knew, as everyone on the tier did, that the prison doctor was Boss Gilmore's drug connection. Fourteen years in prison and Frank had never seen a smoother operator than Gilmore. The man even knew how to make prison blues look like an executive suit.
Larson snarled and shoved the doctor out of the cell. Then he grabbed the warden by the throat. Frank pushed his way out of the corner and summoned everything from his years as a con, everything Rudy had taught him about control and about the power of human presence.
"Out, Larson," he said in a calm voice, pushing his way between Larson and the warden who was already red in the face. "Rudy's dead. We're going to honor his spirit."
Larson's dull face stared right into Frank's. His hands were still tight around the warden's throat. Frank put his hand out flat on Larson's chest and pushed. His voice got lower, more deadly. "Out. I said out."
Larson didn't move. Frank's neck was now right next to the big man's arm. Frank felt Larson's arm shake as he throttled the warden and he felt the warden thrashing behind him. For a second Frank shut his eyes. Rudy was still there with him somehow. "Larson," he said in a voice he himself did not recognize, a voice of restrained power, "Get out."
Larson stared at Frank for a few seconds as if it were taking a long time for messages to reach his brain. He slammed the warden to the floor, muttered "Fuck!" and left the cell.
It was then that the riot squad hit the cell block, putting everyone including Frank in the hole.
The warden lifted himself off the floor. As he struggled up, his hand came to rest on the first page of Frank's print out, A New Society: An Island Prison.